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2 December 2020updated 03 Dec 2020 10:32am

Is Keir Starmer a strategic mastermind or an opportunist driven by events?

Seen one way, the Labour leader has acted decisively and with principle. Seen another, he has reacted hastily to events without knowing what the endgame is.

By Stephen Bush

Most of the time, politics is an argument between competing narratives, but occasionally the interests of Westminster’s warring tribes result in everyone telling the same story. Keir Starmer’s role in parliament’s Brexit debates is a case in point. As far as the Conservatives are concerned, caricaturing the Labour leader as the chief architect of the party’s 2019 efforts to stop Brexit reinforces doubts about the opposition in the former Labour constituencies in the West Midlands and the north that the party lost last December. And for close allies of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, depicting Starmer as the instigator of the party’s 2019 Brexit position is a way to reallocate blame for the rout that Labour suffered.

The portrayal of Starmer as the chief percussionist in the party’s band of unreconciled Remainers before the last election has its uses for the Labour leader, too. At the 2017 election, Labour was committed not only to delivering Brexit but to ending freedom of movement, necessitating the end of the UK’s single market membership as well. Suggesting that Starmer was the considered and deliberate orchestrator of Labour’s gradual shift away from a pledge to implement a hard Brexit and towards its 2019 position makes him seem like a canny operator, one with the strategic abilities to guide Labour through fraught terrain.

Yet there is another, perhaps more compelling and certainly less flattering interpretation: that Starmer was not the master of events, but was as much their victim as Corbyn. This view suggests that Starmer’s Brexit stance shifted in line with the median position among the Remain voters who make up the majority of Labour’s core vote. Or, if you are feeling particularly cynical, with middle opinion among the Labour rank and-file. This would mean that Starmer is not a strategic mastermind but an opportunist, who, through moving from expediency, ended up with a Brexit position that failed to win back the Remainers Labour lost in spring 2019 when a faction of its MPs broke away and created a new front with a few former Conservative MPs.

Starmer remains something of an enigma. He is at once the most experienced neophyte leader of the opposition we have had, and the least. He is the first opposition leader to have served as the de facto CEO of a modern organisation (as head of the Crown Prosecution Service). But he was elected leader a little under five years after he became an MP. He had no experience as a special adviser to fall back on, as Ed Miliband and David Cameron did. And since neither of the two major trade unions at the Crown Prosecution Service – the FDA and the PCS – is Labour-affiliated, Starmer had little direct experience of navigating trade union politics.

[see also: Keir Starmer must expose the government’s shortcomings on Brexit]

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As he nears the end of his first calendar year as party leader, both the prosecution and the defence have strengthened their arguments on Starmer. His admirers can point to the favourable first impression he has made on voters; he is, other than Tony Blair, the most popular opposition leader of the past 40 years, and is the first Labour leader to be more popular than his party since Gordon Brown’s honeymoon was brought to a sudden end by the election that never was. Starmer has carried the majority of his party with him so far, with 55 per cent of members saying they believe Labour is heading in the right direction, according to a Survation poll for the LabourList website.

But Starmer’s biggest and most defining calls have been reactive rather than proactive; his leadership has thus far been defined by the pandemic and, within the party, by his handling of crises not of his choosing. He sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet after she refused to apologise for and retract a tweet sharing an interview in which Maxine Peake made reference to an anti-Semitic trope. And he refused to restore Jeremy Corbyn’s membership to the parliamentary party after the National Executive Committee gave Corbyn a formal warning over his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in Labour. Both these acts sent clear a message: Starmer will prioritise winning back the trust of the Jewish community over party unity.

The decision, however, of his handpicked general secretary, David Evans, to put Corbyn through the party’s discredited disciplinary processes, rather than wait for the introduction of the new, legally mandated independent process, has considerable risks attached. If the new process does not expel Corbyn, then it will now likely be seen as a failure by the majority of British Jews and cause humiliation for Starmer.

If Corbyn is expelled, it will deepen rather than settle Labour’s internal divisions. Given that no mainstream Jewish communal organisation had called for Corbyn to be expelled prior to his suspension, the confrontation was avoidable. Or, at the least, could have been delayed to a point where Starmer could be confident of winning.

Seen one way, Starmer has acted decisively and with principle. Seen in another, he has reacted hastily to events without knowing what the endgame is. Gloomier Corbynites and optimistic members of the Labour right see an organised plan to purge the party’s left flank, though Labour’s current policy positions are to the left of Ed Miliband’s manifesto in 2015. The difficult truth for the Corbynite left is that the fights Starmer has picked with them are ones they started.

It may be that by the end of 2021, Keir Starmer will have proved that the story he and his enemies would prefer to tell about his strategic planning is closer to the truth. But, as it stands, it may be that the real story about the Labour leader is that he did not shape events in the last parliament in his role as shadow Brexit secretary, and may be no better at shaping them in this one. 

[see also: Labour’s warring factions need to work out what their endgame is]

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed